Earliest times (1030-1340)

The history of the church and the town it serves are inextricably linked.

Cranbrook is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Yet a village of sorts probably existed by then. The land around Cranbrook in the 11th century belonged to the Manor of Godmersham, owned by the monks of Canterbury. They were probably the founders of the first church here. It would have been wooden, and some records suggest it was built in the early 1030s and named after St Dunstan--England's most popular saint.

The earliest record of a parish priest, Gaufridius Forti, is from 1171. By his time we are fairly sure that a stone building was either built or under construction. This first stone building would have been much smaller than the present one.

During the 14th century the town changed dramatically and the church with it. In 1331 an Act of Parliament encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England. Cranbrook was one of the places that benefited from their arrival. Soon a new stone church was under construction.
The Glory Years (1340-1550)

Improvements continued in the 15th century. In the late 1340s there would have been a setback when the Black Death passed through Kent, killing at least a third of the population. Ultimately though, the changes benefited the broadcloth trade, for which Cranbrook was now becoming increasingly famous and correspondingly wealthy.

St Dunstan's was fortunate that the period of the town's greatest wealth coincided with two other factors. The first was the technical advance made in stone masonry and architecture that allowed for thinner, higher columns and broader, flatter arches. The second was the Catholic piety of the 15th and early 16th centuries, which inclined many wealthy merchants to donate generously to the improvement of their local church.

It was during the period from 1480-1550 that St Dunstan's transformed into the building we see today. The nave arcade was raised, with thinner moulded pillars. The clerestory--the row of windows above the nave--was added, flooding the church with light. On either side of the chancel two new chapels were added, the Lady Chapel to the north and St Thomas's to the south.

In its fullest pre-Reformation glory, St Dunstan's was a Catholic church. The walls would have been covered with paintings of Biblical narratives. The chancel and side-aisles were studded with memorial brasses. The North Window showed a narrative of Sir Robert Guilford (left), a local magnate, making his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Probably all the aisles had stained-glass windows too. There would have been shrines, each with a separate altar; you can still see the niches, where statues of saints would have stood, in the north aisle. A wooden rood-screen crossed the whole building, separating the two chapels and the chancel.
Times of Struggle (1550-1660)

Life for the Church of England was never more turbulent than during the Reformation, begun (officially at least) by Henry VIII in the 1530s to resolve a marital difficulty. St Dunstan's felt the full force of these events in the century that followed, leading up to the Civil War, the Commonwealth and eventually the Restoration in 1660..

The rood screen was removed, then reinstalled, and removed again. The wall paintings were whitewashed. All the saints' niches were eventually emptied, and most of the stained glass windows removed.

Local magnate Sir John Baker rose to be Chancellor of the Exchequer in Henry VIII's time, retaining his post during Edward VI's short Protestant reign. But when Mary I, ('Bloody Mary') came to the throne in 1553, he not only rediscovered his Catholic sympathies but fiercely implemented her reactionary Catholic policies. He arrested a nearby parish priest with Protestant convictions, imprisoned him in the parvise and had him sent to Canterbury to be burned.

Early in the 1560s St Dunstan's turned into the white, light-filled building that we see today, with no rood screen. The pulpit and the lectern, with its chained English bible, now dominated worship, together with the Book of Common Prayer: all services were now in English not in Latin.

During the Civil War, Parliamentary supporters were probably responsible for defacing some of the stone angels in the nave aisle.
Toleration, Division and Decline (1660-1830)

In the town in the late 17th century there were Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists and Independents in Cranbrook. The majority of townsfolk were soon not worshipping in St Dunstan's but in Nonconformist chapels.

Rev John Johnson attempted to counter the trend. He reasoned that if total immersion was important to the Baptists, there was nothing to prevent the Church of England offering it. So, in 1710, he built the total immersion font that stands just inside the south door. It didn't work: there is only one record of a baptism there.

The problems of church maintenance came to a crisis in 1725. While opening a vault, the gravediggers accidentally undermined a pillar on the south side of the nave. There was a collapse, bringing down the roof, much of the south nave arcade and aisle.

Though the building itself changed little during the 18th century, some of its most striking ornaments belong to this period. At the back, below the bell chamber, is the Royal Coat of Arms, donated by Thomas Basden in 1756 (upper left). In the centre of the nave hangs the candelabra, made around 1700. About ten years later the fine carved wooden figure of Father Time was placed above the clock outside on the Tower (lower left). Finally the splendid Roberts memorial, a family tree donated by the Duchess of St Albans, was added to St Thomas' Chapel in 1775.
Victorian & Edwardian Amendments (1830-1914)

Box pews were replaced with the more democratic open pews still in use today. The gallery was removed and a new organ brought to its present position. The remaining space in the Lady Chapel then became the Vicar's vestry. In the 1850s a new font was installed and from the 1840s onwards stained glass was reintroduced.

Three monuments were added in the south aisle. The first commemorates Dr Comfort Starr, an emigrant to the USA who helped to found Harvard University. Next, just west of the south door, is the Eddye Memorial, a reminder of this parish's continuing links with the US-based Eddy Family Association. Behind the font is the elegant marble monument to Thomas Webster, the leading figure in the Cranbrook Colony of Artists.

The Victorians also removed the false nave ceiling put in after the 1725 collapse.
From the Great War to the Present Day (1914-now)

Behind the lectern on a brass plaque you can find the tragic roll-call of those lost in the 1914-18 war. The 1939-45 war seemed even closer to home: the Battle of Britain was fought out literally overhead. But after World War II the general decline in church attendance continued.

Few structural changes were made during the 20th century. Instead parishioners concentrated on restoration work and on installing modern heating, lighting and sound systems.

Today St Dunstan's Church concentrates on serving its schools, its town and its local musical societies, as well as its growing congregation.

The Friends of St Dunstan's was founded in 1996 to preserve the church as a place of Christian worship and for the benefit of the whole community. The Friends also works to encourage understanding of the architecture, history and significance of St Dunstan's.
IMAGE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
EARLIEST OF TIMES (1030 - 1340) A page from the 10thC Glastonbury Classbook by St Dunstan of Jesus Christ:Wikipedia

THE GLORY YEARS (1340 - 1550) Sir Robert Guilford window: St. Dunstan's Parish Church, Cranbrook

TIMES OF STRUGGLE (1550 - 1660) King Henry VIII & Burning at the Stake: Wikipedia
TOLERATION, DIVISION & DECLINE (1660 - 1830) Thomas Basden, Royal Coat of Arms: St. Dunstan's Parish Church, CranbrookOld Father Time: Cranbrook Museum (photo S Fleming)

VICTORIAN & EDWARDIAN AMENDMENTS (1830 - 1914) Comfort Starr Mygatt and his daughter Lucy: Wikipedia

FROM THE GREAT WAR TO THE PRESENT DAY (1914 - NOW) The Buffs marching through Cranbrook: Cranbrook Museum

Earliest Times The Glory Years Times of Struggle

Toleration, Division & Decline Victorian & Edwardian "Improvements" From the Great War to the Present Day
© Friends of St Dunstans' 2011 | Privacy Policy